Saturday, December 12, 2009

Me and My Graduate

On Monday my son graduates from college. A few years ago I bought him what I thought would be the perfect gift. I still think it’s the perfect gift but it has been sitting in the back of a closet for an awfully long time. The other day my son came bouncing up to me:
Marc: Mom, was the gift you got for my graduation something living? Me: Huh? (I am utterly confused by this question; hence, my eloquent response.) Marc: Well, I’m just hoping I won’t open the door and find a pony skeleton or something. (This is a Family Guy reference, for those of you who are utterly confused.) Me: A pony skeleton? No. More like a dinosaur one.
I can’t even remember what year he started college. But I think it took him slightly less time than it took me to go through college. Slightly by maybe one semester. I suppose I could ask. I'd rather just enjoy the glowing pride I'm currently feeling.
Edit: I asked and Marc says it took him just over five years so it took him nearly two years less time than it did for me to graduate. Wow! He probably feels like it took forever but he did a remarkably good job of getting through college while working full time, etc. Yay Marc!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Poetry as a Spiritual Practice by Robert McDowell

Poetry as a Spiritual Practice: Reading, Writing, and Using Poetry in Your Daily Rituals, Aspirations, and Intentions by Robert McDowell does not live up to its title, unfortunately, and the promise that it offers left me disappointed. While offering samples of poetry from a wealth of writers in a broad range of spiritual traditions, the end result is more a poetry handbook that gives tacit and occasional nods to the spiritual practice of poetry. Even in the chapter for haiku, a poetic form that is deeply rooted in Buddhism and Shintoism, the idea of writing poetry as a meditative practice is glossed over. Although the suggestion to use poetry as a prayer is made, it remains merely a suggestion with few exercises that are fully grounded in how to incorporate poetry in one’s spiritual (ie. daily life). All the more disappointing, many of the writing exercises are designed to be shared or even done in collaboration with others so the reader without a writing community or friends who are familiar, even comfortable, with poetry are likely to find themselves frustrated as they read through the book. With all of this said, this is a good introduction to poetry, with some interesting writing exercises. Some of the exercises are not surprising (ie. write about poetry and your feelings toward before trying to actually write any poetry yourself, take a piece of prose writing and change it into a poem, take a poem and change it into prose) while others are interesting although rarely result in anything useful (ie. he offers end rhyme words and suggests the reader write to the “end word” which, for me, didn’t produce any metaphors, images, or ideas on which I could build in another format). What is this book missing? That is not an honest question because really what I think it is missing are things I thought would be there. 1. I thought McDowell would offer samples from various sacred texts and invite the reader to respond reflectively through journaling, perhaps in a response poem. 2. I thought there would be some “mechanics” taught—like rhyme and meter, line and even a few form poems. I did not expect it to be the bulk of the book. 3. I thought more of the exercises would specifically address spirituality and not focus so much upon write a poem, write another poem, write a poem with another person. 4. I thought most, if not all, of the exercises would be designed to be done by the individual reader and not for a group. 5. I thought that there would be more emphasis on how to incorporate spirituality into the reading and sharing of poetry as well as how to infuse a spiritual practice with more poetry. Is it the author’s fault that I came to the text with expectations? Yes, because the title establishes a promise—how to use poetry (reading and writing) in daily rituals, etc. So why do so few of the exercises even begin to discuss the idea of poetry as a practice? I cannot say. However, if you are trying to find a resource, a book that will inspire you to write your own poetry and make poetry more a part of your spiritual life, I recommend Poetic Medicine by John Fox and Seeds from a Birch Tree by Clark Strand

IHOP Holiday Pancakes

IHOP (International House of Pancakes) has holiday pancakes and they sounded too yummy to resist. So I didn’t. Kanika and I went to the local IHOP for pancakes and here is what I think of the holiday offerings.

Eggnog Pancakes One would think, what with how I adore eggnog, that I would adore these pancakes. The truth is, I found them bland, barely noggy, and overall disappointing. It wasn’t enough like typical pancakes to be a good breakfast choice nor decadent enough to fall into the dessert category.

Gingerbread Pancakes These came in a close second. I could (would) skip the colorful red and green sprinkles, personally. All they add is color and crunchiness to the pancakes which, let’s face it, should be neither colorful nor crunchy. But there’s a perfect bite of spice to these pancakes. Definitely yummy.

Pecan Pie Pancakes These are not pancakes but a dessert layered between pancakes. Just a couple bites of this offering and I was in hard core sugar shock. The pecans that are sprinkled around the plate are actually sugar coated. Why? The filling is thick and so sweet that I can’t imagine anyone eating these as part of a healthy breakfast. (Albeit, one could argue that pancakes are not typically healthy to begin with.)

Pumpkin Pancakes These are my favorites. When I saw that IHOP had come out with new holiday variations, I thought maybe I would exchange one favorite (pumpkin) for a new one (probably eggnog) but even after tasting all of the above, these are the superior pancake variety by far. I could see possibly having both the pumpkin and gingerbread ones but why? I looooove the pumpkin ones. (I usually have them without the whipped cream, however.) And yes, I realize that my opinion about these things probably holds little to no weight to you, my reader. However, this time next year when I am tempted to give the holiday pancakes a second chance, I’ll have a documented reason to avoid the others and focus on the best.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sex at Noon Taxes by Sally Van Doren

Sex at Noon Taxes by Sally Van Doren is the winner of the Walt Whitman Award, a prestigious honor that compelled me, along with the title, to read this collection of poetry because I wanted to better understand the title and to see what poetry is winning the Walt Whitman award. There are certain poets whose poetry is so heavy with metaphor, so veiled in nuance, I end up reading the poem and feeling stupid. Never have I suffered through an entire collection of such poetry. And although there are some poems within this collection that are concrete enough in the imagery as to be clear that even in my stupidity I got it. Unfortunately, what I got was not interesting; the content left me feeling bored and dull. Most interesting about the collection is how the author has written each poem with the same number of lines: fourteen. This is the number of lines traditional to sonnets, whether—Petrarchian, Shakespearian, or Spenserian. It is interesting to see who she plays with the lines, varying the length, creating stanzas of that break the traditional molds, free versing her way through the traditional fourteen line dictates. However, to see how effective this is, to explore the lines for how they are created, to ascertain the poets meaning (or presumed meaning) in how she chooses to create these varying line breaks, one must first appreciate the content of the piece itself, to find the theme and how the form adds to the meaning of the poem. But when the poetry is so obtuse, obfuscating and intentionally obscure, whatever hunger there might be to dig deeper is lost. After all, if you don’t get the poem on a surface level, why put in more work to dig up the deeper, often dirtier, mechanics of it all? It is poetry like this that makes me think I will never be a poet. It is poetry like this that makes me not want to bother writing poetry. After all, what is the point unless your intention is to make your reader feel foolish for not appreciating the brilliance of imagery? Not the poet’s fault that I am too blind to see. Too bad there’s no amazing grace to unblind my eyes.
I found the note that my mother sent with the book after I had finished reading it and this is what she said: Satia-What’s your opinion? I hate metaphor—I just can’t wrap my mind around it. XXOO What do I think, Momma? I don’t hate metaphor but I confess that I can’t appreciate poetry that doesn’t offer me a reason for the metaphor.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Prayerfulness by Robert J Wicks

Prayerfulness: Awakening to the Fullness of Life by Robert J Wicks purportedly combines the concepts of contemplative practice (aka meditation) and contemporary psychology with traditional Christian concepts of prayer. At least, that is what I thought I was getting when I picked up this book. This is the kind of book that, if I were still going to church every Sunday and reading Christian books, I would have found incredibly insulting, offering pablum over content. If I knew someone who is completely new to prayer or Christianity, I might recommend this book to them. It isn’t bad but the content is so basic that anyone with an active prayer life or even meditation practice will find nothing profound within the pages. Wicks shares stories from his own and other people’s experiences with predictable lessons drawn from each. The practical suggestions are nothing new or particularly provocative. This is spirituality lite—a good place to start, safe bordering on the mediocre. The Recommended Reading List includes far superior literature on prayer and meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness and Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God are both included. Missing is Richard Foster’s powerful book on Prayer, one that offers a broader and more in depth exploration of the different types of prayer, offering the reader a more challenging opportunity to grow spiritually. Although Wick’s book is trite and perhaps typical of inspirational literature, it is well written, well organized, and well researched. However, I would only recommend this book to very recent converts and even then I would more likely recommend Foster or Brother Lawrence long before I would recommend this pleasant but unfulfilling book. I didn’t hate it but I truly wanted to love it more.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Movies Watched December 1-7

There will be a lot of movie watching during the holidays so I figured I would do a weekly update of the movies I watched for the first time. Some may surprise you. Others probably not.
I finally watched Chicago, a movie I've wanted to see since it first was released but hadn't seen. Actually, I confess I wanted to see it in spite of the casting because I was unconvinced that Renee Zellweger would do a good job with a challenging role. When I heard good buzz I wanted to see the movie all the more. I love that the production retains the Fosse influence, that the choreography and style retain his imprint so beautifully. (And I had a giggle when I saw Rivera in a cameo moment.) Adored this one and would love to add it to my collection. Everyone was great. I probably would have enjoyed less fancy camera work, allow the performances to stand without the constant cutting and angles, but I'm old school sometimes and I appreciate why the interjection was "necessary."

The Other Boleyn Girl is an insult to anyone’s intelligence.The novel at least tried to be historically accurate albeit the author leaned more on the gossip than the truth to make her novel more titillating. But the movie just tosses aside any attempt at historical precision, even going so far as to have Mary be the younger of the two sisters. The whole thing was ridiculous and not even particularly pretty. You want a quick and painless look at Henry VIII, watch this updated BBC version. For a more genuine look at his life and wives, watch The Six Wives of Henry VIII, an older version that actually gives Catherine of Aragorn her due and allows the viewer to see the depth of the love these two shared. If you want a pretty version that plays a little loose with history but is still more accurate than this crappy movie was, then watch Showtime’s The Tudors.

Christmas Movies
Our first holiday movie for December was Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. I get very tired of Hollywood trying to milk a cash cow. I haven't seen the second movie but I am inclined to wonder why they bothered making more than the first. Mind you, the first is cute enough. Not brilliant but at least amusing at times. Of course, the real question is why I bother watching sequels when they so rarely deliver. And let's be honest, the first movie wasn't so remarkable to merit one sequel, let alone two.
The next movie we watched was Christmas on Chestnut Street, a made-for-television bit of fluff. Most of it was a predictable disappointment, with little chemistry between the romantic leads, but the moments with the father who has Alzheimer's were especially poignant, given that Rob's grandmother died in May and had this disease. Then I sort of watched A Christmas Carol with Kelsey Grammer. To be honest, I didn't pay much attention to it after the first few scenes. I saw Scrooge at Radio City Music Hall and I wasn't sure that another musical version was necessary (although I have to agree that Grammer is a natural choice for such a thing). And here's the thing: I left the theater humming one of the songs. During the commercials of this new musical, I was humming songs but not from the movie. I think that says it all.

Anaïs Nin by Nancy Scholar

Anaïs Nin by Nancy Scholar is a literary commentary on Nin’s body of work which, as seems typical of literary explorations of Nin’s writings focuses on her diaries, doesn’t do much more than mention her erotica, and alludes to her book about D H Lawrence then digs a little more deeply into her novels with constant references back to the diaries. Because Nin is most familiar to readers and scholars for her diaries, none of this is really a surprise. However, I keep hoping that someone will be bold enough to give her erotica the same attention as they do her novels, none of which are ever praised or critically acclaimed. Given that her erotica still sells and remains more popular than any of her novels (although her diaries obviously outshine everything else), I find it surprising that nobody has done so already. But ultimately, Nin’s diaries are her magnum opus, the great masterpiece of her life, even moreso than the life she led. Anyone who has read Nin’s journals knows that the woman presented on the page is an idealized version of the self although not always pretty. That Nin often comes across as a narcissist is not surprising; she seems to revel on the page in her own self exploration and exposure, even giving her diaries to be read by those same people who manifest in the words. What makes Nin diaries relevant is timing and happenstance. She is a proto-feminist, a woman unwilling to be tied down to the traditional definition of womanhood—wife, mother, etc. Instead, she fights herself and societal expectations to be an artist all the while sublimating her own commitment to her craft by helping the men in her life to flourish. (A prime example, one that is often mentioned, is her giving Henry Miller her typewriter so he could write.) There are so many other famous people mentioned throughout her journals that a casual reader might be tempted, after reading Scholar’s book, to read the journals to learn more about these others but the truth is that Nin never devotes her diary to these other people with the same fervor as she does herself. Where Scholar’s book excels is in the exploration of how Nin’s life, as delineated in her diaries, informs her novels. Even if the novels themselves are never considered brilliant, and likely they never will be, anyone who has read Nin’s diaries may be tempted to read her novels. After reading Scholar’s analysis, the temptation may be more tempered.
Throughout, it is evident that Scholar admires Nin but is not blinded by love. She neither lauds nor vilifies Nin. And although her focus is mostly on Nin’s early life and diaries, most of which are now available unedited/unexpurgated, the diaries Scholar uses as her primary sources are clearly the ones published first, the edited versions. Not all but at least some, Henry and June for example, were available at the time so I find Scholar’s choice to use the edited texts a bit odd.
If you like scholarly (no pun intended) explorations, the type of literary criticism that makes literature majors cream themselves, then you’ll enjoy this book. Or if you have read Nin’s journals and find yourself curious about her other writings (again, not her erotica), then you might find this book interesting. Mostly, this book is meant for college students who are writing papers or for people like me who are curious to read something between the lines.